The IIT JEE is rated as the toughest entrance exam for securing admission to an undergraduate engineering course. For at least the past two decades (and maybe more) a 35% to 45% score in the IIT JEE exam has been sufficient to qualify and be a rank holder -- whereas a 90%+ score has been easily achievable in the 12th Board exams!
Students at a lab in the IIT Powai campus
The reason behind this is that the regular school/college exams in Std 11 and 12 are primarily a test of the memory power of a student, and his presentation skills -- so, even a student with poor understanding can get admission to engineering colleges across the country. In stark contrast, memory plays a negligible role in the IIT JEE exam -- it is a test of the understanding of the student and how he applies that understanding to solving problems.
Over the past decade, the pattern of the IIT JEE has changed a couple of times -- with the aim of making the exam "simpler" so that more and more students try for the exam with lesser pressure on them. I feel that "dumbing down" the entrance exam is counter-productive. If we are trying to find out who the best 10,000 students across the country are, who in future can be leading scientists or technocrats, the pattern of the exam has to be such that it can effectively differentiate between students.
And that is the one thing I like about the IIT JEE -- that the bulk of the candidates getting into the IITs are all deserving of it -- it is virtually impossible for a student who does not have the right aptitude to do well in the test. Yes, there has been a slight dilution in the quality of entrants, but that is to be expected -- as the number of ranks given by IIT has increased from 2000 to more than 10000 in the last two decades.
But to say that this decline is due to the coaching class culture is incorrect, as an exam like the IIT JEE requires a combination of aptitude and effort. Just hard work and practice cannot make students "somehow get through the joint entrance examination" as Narayan Murthy claimed.
However, I do agree that a certain section of the IIT JEE coaching industry -- the Kota-based institutes -- have virtually spawned a "factory" culture. The students there have a linear development, killing their intuitive and creative approach to problem solving. The entire formal education system has been bypassed by these institutes. So, there is a need for regulating the coaching industry. Other than this, I agree with most of the points raised by Mr Murthy. The IITs have not really delivered in the area of research and innovation.
The reason for this is not so much the poor quality of students, but the lack of an environment that encourages independent thinking and research. The IIT faculty, the government and the private sector will all have to work together towards creating this environment. As far as English communication skills go, it would be unfair to set this as a criteria for entering IIT. But yes, there needs to be proper emphasis on improving English for required students, once they have gained entry to the IITs.
Mohit Goel is an IIT Bombay (1994), IIM Ahmedabad alumus, a resident of Mumbai, and the founder of Yukti Educational Services Pvt. Ltd. He responds to Infosys chief NR Narayana Murthy's view about slump in the quality of education in IITs, and his opinion that there was a need to overhaul the selection criteria for students seeking admission to the prestigious technology institutes.