22/08/2016 11:46 AM IST | Updated 22/08/2016 12:17 PM IST

Why Continuing Drop-Outs At IITs And IIMs Should Deeply Worry India

"The drop-outs are continuing warning signs of a deeper decay."

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IITs and IIMs are the most difficult educational institutions in India to get in, but over the last few years it turns out that they are also quite easy to leave.

Last year, the then Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani had said that about 2000 students had left the IITs without completing their courses between 2012 and 2015; on Sunday, The Times of India reported that the trend continued during 2014-2016 too.

The only difference this time is that the IIMs too have been added to the list. Reportedly about 2000 students in IITs and IIMs didn't finish their courses during 2014-16.

Some of the numbers may have overlapped because of the overlapping years, however, the critical point is that IITs, which have the highest entry-barriers for engineering education in the country, are unable to retain all the students that they admit because all of the latter are not able to cope with the academic rigour expected of them. The situation, although at a lower scale because the overall numbers are lower, is similar with the IIMs too.

So, it's time to raise the all-important question once again - why does this happen, particularly when IITs and IIMs are India's best gateways to highly rewarding professional careers?

The IITs or the HRD ministry is yet to come out with disaggregated data on the drop-outs; but, past evidence points to the most obvious: students are unable to cope with the demands of education in these institutions. There are two obvious reasons - one, not all the students who crack the joint entrance examinations are good enough to study in these institutions; and two, those who gain entry through reservations find the standards too high to cope with.

In 2015, it was reported that about 90 per cent of the students that IIT Roorkee gave a second chance to after expelling them for poor performance were from backward categories (SCs, STs and OBCs). The reasons were not too hard to find. Reporting on the alleged suicide of a student at IIT Mumbai in 2014, DNA had reported that about about 56 percent of students at the institution under reserved categories felt discrimination. Moreover, about 60 percent of them also felt more pressured by academics than the general category students. Their difficulty showed up in their CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average) as well — while the average CGPA for the general category students was 8.09, for the OBC-students it was 6.6, and for the SC/ST, 5.9.

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Drop-out in professional colleges is not uncommon, but such large numbers, that too from the most prestigious institutions that give the best career-headstart in India is puzzling. Obviously, after the entry, some find themselves below par on academics. And they include both students who get through the absolute "merit" route and through affirmative action.

The problem with the "merit" students who are unable to cope with the academic standards is in fact the problem with the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) itself. It's still coaching-driven and there's no filter to see if all the students who crack the JEE, the toughest in the country, are really fit enough to study in the IITs.

The coaching centres have mastered the technique of rigging the system by some form of an intense circuit training wherein the students learn patten recognition rather than getting a deeper understanding of core subjects. As a result, they score well in the entrance test, but remain limited in their knowledge of the subject-matter. Once the classes begin, their chinks show up. Some of them find themselves to be really inadequate.

Not that the HRD ministry and the administrators haven't been aware of this situation, but there hasn't been any effort in whittling the unhealthy clout of the coaching industry. The only way to do this was to give substantial weightage to Class 12 marks as well.

In 2012, the HRD ministry had tried to make it mandatory that to qualify, students should belong to the top 20 percentile in Class 12 board exams, which would have roughly translated to 78 per cent marks. Although this wasn't high enough because more than 90,000 students score more than 90 per cent marks - and about 40,000, more than 95 per cent - in CBSE Class 12 exams, the government came under pressure to reduce it to 75 per cent. Seventy five per cent is too low a bar in India, particularly in view of the disparate quality of school education.

One of the arguments against the "high" cut-off suggested by the HRD ministry was that it would compromise the chances of rural students. However, the question on how the same rural students would crack the JEE was unanswered. It was primarily an empty-argument of the coaching industry which has long since bypassed the school academics. In fact, even before the 20-percentile proposal, Kapil Sibal, the HRD minister during UPA-II, had proposed a 50:50 formula (50 per cent for entrance and 50 per cent for school marks). That too had been shot down.

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The problem seems to be less serious for IIMs. Although the numbers have been steadily rising over the years - because the intake is smaller and the selection process is more comprehensive - a good score in the Common Admission Test (CAT), emphasis on consistent academic records, and other filters such as personal interviews and group discussions reduce the margin of error. Still, some find the going tough - mostly because of the rigour. The Times of India report quotes an IIM faculty member saying that it was mainly the backward class students who suffer more.

Although the writing on the wall has been quite clear, nobody still wants to act on it. The problem lies with the quality of school education. Dropping out of professional institutions is an epidemic across India because indiscriminate privatisation of education has created excessive capacity with no accountability on quality. The pass percentage in engineering in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which are littered with private colleges, is less than 50 with some colleges failing to score even 10 per cent. Those with poor school education are destined to fail or drop out.

With entry barriers rigged, the phenomenon now plagues the IITs as well. The glut is so overwhelming that, as the Anil Kakodkar Committee Report (on improving the stature of IITs) noted, "in the 1970s and early 1980s, close to 10 per cent of engineering graduates came from the IITs; this has dropped to below 0.5% today."

The drop-outs are continuing warning signs of a deeper decay. It's time to rejig the school education system and shut down the tyranny of the coaching industry.

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