Archive for July, 2012

The percentile way to ruin the IITs

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Mint, 12 July 2012

It’s amazing. This is the first Union government to have three IITians in its top tier, and we have such a mess over the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) entrance system. Jairam Ramesh, Ajit Singh and Nandan Nilekani (who has cabinet rank) are all IITians. It’s just yet another symptom of the broader malaise that affects the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) II government—it’s every man for himself, and the central leadership is too weak to intervene. There is no evidence at all that Kapil Sibal, human resources development minister, even informed any of his colleagues who have first-hand knowledge of the IIT system, before unleashing his spurious “one nation, one test” proposal (This is the biggest lie perpetrated in the field of Indian education in recent times; the proposal simply merges two tests into one and leaves all the others untouched).

Apparently, a consensus has been reached between the IIT Council, that supreme body, and the IITs, on the modus operandi of engineering admission. In an earlier column (“The sublimity of the IIT brand”, Mint, 15 June), I had argued: “What…is dangerous (in Sibal’s proposed method) is the board angle,” and that weightage given to class XII board marks while admitting students to IITs could seriously damage the cornerstone of the IIT brand, “fairness”. It has now been decided: no weightage to board marks, but only those in the top 20 percentile in their boards will be eligible for admission to IITs.

This raises numerous questions, none of which the IIT Council can give an honest answer to. I list only a few:

On 4 July, the Hindustan Times carried a report on a 2009 Indian Institute of Science study of performance of students from India’s 29 boards over 10 years in the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY), a common national test to select India’s brightest class XII science students. The average score of students from the CBSE, ICSE, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh boards far exceeded those of students from other boards. The implications are obvious. There may be lots of students who are not in the top 20 percentile of the better boards, but are actually brighter than those in the top 20 in the laggards. But they won’t get into an IIT.

According to data from the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, in 2010, 29,000 students sat for the ICSE (science stream), while 600,000 took the Uttar Pradesh board exams (science). So only 5,800 ICSE students will be eligible for IITs, while from UP, 120,000 will be eligible! This, when the KVPY results show that an ICSE student does much better in science than the UP board student. So, the better the board, the less chance you have of getting into IIT. The bigger the board, the higher your chances. This percentile “quota” is just plain ridiculous.

Prof. Gautam Barua, director of IIT Guwahati, has even said that since CBSE has higher budgets than many state boards (and so teaches better), the percentile formula will lead to social inclusion. This shameless hypocrisy beggars belief. As Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi of IIT Kanpur counters: “The new scheme forces people to have additional coaching for class XII and, hence, excludes people from rural areas and financially weaker sections who do not have access to coaching. (You) are essentially (giving) an advantage to city dwellers from middle class and richer families who choose to join state board schools with a hope to get higher percentile in an easy board. That, frankly, does not sound like social inclusion.” And we all know that this whole exercise is to stymie coaching classes.

Can all the boards announce their results by mid-June, when the engineering entrances take place? On 11 July, I clicked on the “class XII results” link on the Maharashtra Higher Secondary Board website. A blank screen opened up, with a shy “Hello” in the top left corner (The results are out, you can get them from, for example, rediff.com, but the board website is not updated). And now the boards would also have to sort through caste data (for the reservations in IITs), and find percentiles. And they have hardly any time to rejig their processes, because the government is hell-bent on having the new system in place for 2013.

I could go on, but space does not permit. However, one basic question needs to be asked. Why this obsession with class XII marks for IIT? Why not then for all competitive exams, such as medicine, law, and so on? Why not for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC)? What do our bureaucrats say to that? I thought the UPSC entrance exams also have a thriving coaching class ecosystem, and that’s what our government is against, isn’t it?

The most immoral—I use that word deliberately—aspect of all this is the insistence that all the changes happen in 2013, knowing fully well that there is no chance that all stakeholders will be able to get systems in place in time. But 2013 it has to be, because 2014 is election year, when the Election Commission may object to such dramatic measures. So what if you are putting the fate of lakhs of students in jeopardy? Shame on you, Kapil Sibal, and shame on those members of the IIT Council going along with this, either through cravenness or with the hope that some benefits will be passed their way by their political masters.

Note: The author has been helped immensely in his research by Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi’s blog, dsanghi.blogspot.com.

The Gandhis have lost the plot

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Mint, 11 July 2012

When I picked up The Indian Express on Tuesday morning, and read that Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid had told an editor of the paper that till now the Congress has seen “only cameos of (Rahul Gandhi’s) thoughts (and)…he has not weaved all of this into a grand announcement,” I knew that we would have to wait only a few hours before Khurshid called a press conference and issued a clarification. Sure enough, that happened, and one should be thankful that the minister did not deny having said any of the stuff quoted in the newspaper. Because in much of what he said, he sounded uncannily like those media columnists who have worn out their keyboards in the last three years pointing out all that’s terribly wrong with UPA-II. For example:

“In UPA II, governance and politics have all got intermingled. The political props have got mixed up. It’s a scattered situation. The stage has to be set up again and only the Congress president can do it. She is the one who has the stature. The Prime Minister can then run the government, but he cannot set the stage.”

“The problem with mixed-up props is that you know the lines but you suddenly realize that things around you are not the same. And we have also not had the time because events are forcing the pace, they are leading us.”

“It’s not only economic reforms that have slowed down. Even political and administrative reforms have not happened because of this situation.”

No columnist could put it better. What a perfect metaphor the man has used—that of theatre! He has compared this government to actors who mugged up their lines and went on stage only to find that it’s a different play. And the new lines that can save the day for the actors and bring some coherence back to the play can be written only by Sonia Gandhi.

But the audience has started heckling and booing, and Sonia Gandhi is nowhere to be seen. Neither, as Khurshid admits sadly, is Rahul. “The fact is that he is undoubtedly and unquestionably the number two leader in the party. Yet he has not taken up the mantle or accepted a functional responsibility. He is so far not willing to accept the number two position. In such a situation, we have to wait. This is a waiting time.” What Khurshid does not say, though any fool can make out that it’s worrying the hell out of him, is that while the hapless actors wait for the new script, the audience is losing all its patience, especially since there’s not too much running time left for the show. If something is not done quickly, they’ll possibly burn the hall down or something. There’s less than two years left for the next general elections.

It is interesting—but entirely unsurprising—that Khurshid’s later clarifications extended only to his remarks about Rahul Gandhi. “My urging of the young and new leadership of our party to prepare themselves to lead from the front, to prepare themselves to take on the challenge of our times is something you must see in the right context rather than in the negative context,” he said. After which, he sulked about the media projecting everything said by those in government or in the Congress “in a negative light”, and that he “on reflection,” felt that “this (discussion about leadership) is something which we should restrict to within our party forum.” However, one suspects that that last statement was actually a “refraction” of the inevitable rap on the knuckles he had received from the Gandhi family about speaking honestly as a worried Congressman to a journalist.

It should be noted that in his press “clarification” press conference, the only time he spoke about the government, he reverted to lines from the old play, stuff that he himself said was incongruous, given that all the stage props had changed: “We are determined as a government to face the global challenges that have an impact here as well and those local domestic issues that have arisen, we will face them with confidence.” Clearly, he knew now that he had misunderstood the situation. The Congress President and her son see nothing wrong with everyone reciting the old lines, even though the play is different.

Or they can’t think up any new lines. In other words, they have lost the plot.