The IITs – Factory and the Copycat ProblemApril 3, 2010 2010-04-03 11:34
The IITs – Factory and the Copycat Problem
The IITs – Factory and the Copycat Problem
[In continuation with our theme on ‘Education Industry in India, here is a followup post to IIT Education, IIT Brand or Engineering [What do we want?]. The article is written by Anup, final year student at IIT KGP]
The IITs are a smoking cauldron of intelligence, creativity, and boredom. It is no secret that only the best filter in through the all-India IIT entrance exam, IIT JEE. What is in fact not very well known is the other side of the story, or rather, the other side of the boundary of an IIT. What goes on inside an IIT is still a matter of interest for the populace at large and also the only reason why every shoddily written; starkly amateurish in language, thought and content; and intensely boring novella that only so long as manages to barely mention the name of this grand institution sells like sex and/or Shahrukh khan.
What brought about this Great Indian Success Story of the IITs and what continues to fuel it is the one and only exceptional resource that the IITs can truly claim to house, its students. It’s the students that make this place a creative abode despite the numbness of the average student’s average department’s average curriculum. It would be astonishing to an outsider to notice the number and percentage of students here that end up dissatisfied and disillusioned with their departments and the administration at large. These students are then left with themselves and their hungry brains to figure out for themselves ways to pass their years productively, as per their own definition of productivity.
As far as the students and the study curriculum is concerned, the IITs tend to behave like factories. A product enters the assembly line, is worked upon in a fixed predefined manner that has been static since the decades passed. The defective products are thrown out, the ones that fit the parameters glorified, and the ones in between that just scrape through somehow, go largely unnoticed. Now this method is not really inherently mistaken or problematic, except that the parameters that are used are grossly outdated. The parameters that decide how well a student fares in his academic scores are currently at an alarming mismatch with the actual intellect and creative capability of the student. And that is a problem with rather unfortunate consequences.
A student enters the IIT system by way of his JEE rank that largely decides his department of study irrespective of where the actual potential of the student lay. The student is just out of school, has barely an inkling of the various fields of study available for graduation, and definitely does not have himself or herself figured out enough to say where his academic/research/work interests lay, if anywhere at all. And IIT is where he (or she) figures it out, only to be frustrated at how little can now be done about it once a little time has already passed. A department change is not based on how well versed you are with the knowledge and understanding of the department of study you want to get into, but rather on how well you have fit the generic parameters that are used to judge you. And these parameters do not change, whatever be the situation where they are used to judge you. In fact, the use of the word parameters is rather misleading, since there is only one parameter that a professor, the administration, or the academic system basically uses to *judge* a student’s worth and value. That parameter is your Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA), the one holistic number that is a barometer of your performance in the institute. And what decides this holistic all-encompassing number? Of course only your grades. In the department you are stuck in.
The Copycat problem
In our nation the engineering colleges, at least the ones worth getting admission into, are in a very high-pressure situation. The cause: there are just not enough of them. And under these conditions, the engineering colleges, most of which are already strained with managing the high growth and accompanying student intake, just fall back on replicating the historically successful IIT model as much as they can and keep graduating batch after batch. What seems to be lost to everyone is the fact that the IITs are not perfect, that talent is wasted in the IITs at a disturbing rate, that the IITs themselves are at a loss as to how to mend the glaring gaps in the system while they too try to keep afloat amidst infrastructure inadequacy, faculty shortage, and the herculean efforts to “maintain the standards”.
What really makes an IIT the great place it is, is the swarming intelligence it manages to garner through JEE. That’s a positive feedback loop that just keeps on feeding on itself creating more and more of an alumni base that is an envy of the world. There is no mistaking what IIT adds to you as a person, but even if it did not, the JEE is still at least a working list of the exceptional brains in the country ready to grow up and matter, to the world at large.
This list is not exhaustive, and there are more worthy minds that the JEE leaves out than it accepts, all due to the mere limitations of infrastructure and resources. Resources not just physical nature, but the intellectual ones, that is, the Professors, too. The professors are the greatest resource in an institute after the students themselves. And the professors, the good ones, the ones that make a lasting positive difference to a student’s life, are just too unfortunately rare to come by. The faculty shortage is not just a problem in the IITs but in our country as a whole.
And the reasons behind this damaging fact are barely explored or worked on. Yes you put a few of the best student minds in the country together and you’re sure to see some magic and fireworks, but won’t it be just game-changing if there was sufficient quality faculty to match and equal this resource. Moulding hands that write more on students’ minds than on the blackboard. Inspiring minds that make a student want to come to the classroom, instead of the fear of academic punishment. Good faculty inspires more students to take up the field of teaching and you have more of the goodness. But this positive feedback loop works exactly opposite to desire if the initial set is not good enough. There needs to be accelerated change helped by policy if the damage is to be contained. And reservations in any field are only concerned with distributing the share of the pie, not increasing and growing the pie itself.
Now what would be great to see in the next few years in the IIT education system is the following:
- More freedom to the students for selecting, shifting over to, and/or working in their chosen fields of study that is more dependent on their creative potential than the generic first-year test scores or JEE rank.
- Hiring faculty from well-ranking foreign universities if exceptional faculty is hard to come by in the country itself. Just like when the IITs were founded.
- Recognising and encouraging student potential in creative fields other than just number-crunching. Recognition of such talent by the institute would make a student more confident and willing to explore other aspects of his personality than just fitting into merely academic parameters.
- A more transparent working, to gain student confidence in the administration. This would go a long way in building the same strong student-teacher relationships reminisced by alumni of the earlier decades.
Here’s wishing this great institution an ever brighter future, and generations and generations of worthy alumni.
Image credit [via Flickr]