Kapil Sibal has always been an opinionated and combative minister. Perhaps this is why the rather simplistic caricature of an overbearing central ministry trying to somehow tinker with and fix the hard-working old IITs turned into the dominant narrative of the controversy around the common engineering entrance exam. Yet, this is far too important a debate to be reduced to personality politics alone and there are far too many red herrings in the emotive public discourse around it.

This is partly because the social status of the IITs as the super-elevator to power and opportunity in this country puts them at the pinnacle of Indian aspiration. As the nirvana of the middle classes, any debate about the IITs takes on the dimensions of a crisis about the future of education itself but it is important to get some perspective.
Recent research shows that roughly 85 percent of all engineering seats and engineering colleges in India are now run by the private sector. IITs may attract all the attention but they account for just about one percent of all engineering graduates, just as JEE aspirants constitute a small fraction of the millions who take the Class XII exam every year. A good education system must be one that takes care of problems for the greatest good, not just of the few.

Secondly, the banner of autonomy is always a good one to rally to but it seems to have turned into a catch-all cipher for opposing any kind of new idea. Autonomy is central to a university system and the IITs have been fortunate to be largely free of governmental nitpicking that has plagued the rest of the university system so far. However, the broad thrust of the changes being debates now is not about the running of the IITs but simply about organising a more cohesive and systemic inflow.

It is difficult to see how the decision to hold a common test for all engineering colleges with some weightage to the school system in the first stage, followed by an advanced test for IIT admissions alone, necessarily limits the autonomy of the IITs. Of all major countries, India alone has a system where performance in school has absolutely no bearing on admissions to its apex engineering colleges. Schooling in India may have its problems but to argue that it should be completely irrelevant to the future of those who study further is puzzling. We are so used to the broken system we have that we find it difficult to step back and realise how disjointed the current state of affairs is

It also defies reason that school-leaving students aiming to be engineers should be sitting for as many as 20-30 different examinations, instead of being evaluated on a standardised national parameter which accounts for several registers: academic knowledge, school performance and aptitude. All the world’s major universities work in this way, so why can’t the IITs?

The new system will not eliminate coaching institutes. Nothing will, as long as demand exceeds supply as much as it does. But it may make the higher education pipeline for engineering more streamlined and organised, with a slightly lesser burden on students.

The third concern is the dilution of Brand IIT. This is a bogey that obfuscates some of the deeper concerns around the IITs. The IITs are at the apex of the Indian system not just because they are autonomous and impart high quality education but also because they get the best scientific talent in the country. That is unlikely to change even with the new system.

The bigger concern is that only two IITs consistently rank in the top 500 of global universities. This is unfortunately not too impressive by international standards and for some time now leading luminaries of the IIT system itself have been publicly voicing concerns about research, the quality of the intake and the limitations of the Joint Entrance Examination which in its present form seems to have outlived its usefulness. This was also the conclusion of the Damodar Acharya and T Ramaswamy committees which recommended the changes that have caused so much heat-burn.

The problem is less with the larger idea and more with its implementation which has led to the farcical situation now of two of the country’s premier IITs threatening to go ahead with their own examinations, and others indicating broad support. By rushing through for a 2013 date of conversion and giving the impression of not listening to dissent, the HRD ministry seems to have scored an unnecessary self-goal. Getting the faculty and key alumni on board in a transparent dialogue should have been the first step, particularly when the opposition from the IIT senates has been known all along. What we have now is a trust deficit which means that even good ideas are not being given a hearing.

The irony is that the current uncertainty will hit the students the most. Fundamental change like this needs time and to rush in without adequate warning and groundwork seems an avoidable mistake. Why insist on a 2013 date of conversion when it is guaranteed to cause so much upheaval, particularly for students who find that the goalposts have suddenly shifted?

It is time now to put out the fires and for a compromise that works.

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