Every year, nearly 1.4 million students in India appear for one of the most competitive engineering entrance examinations in the world -- the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). Few other examinations surpass this in scale; the Gaokao in China had about 8.8 million applicants recently.
In order to compete in this grueling two-phased exam (JEE Mains and JEE Advanced), students prepare for many years. High rank in the JEE Advanced enables the student to grab a seat in one of the IITs, the country's premier institute. However, to even be able to sit for JEE Advanced, they would have had to cross the hurdle of JEE Mains and attain good marks in school boards.
Let's just say, crossing the journey of JEE is not easy.
The IITs and the JEE
Undergraduate degree from IITs is seen as sure-shot pathway to success, mainly because it helps get an edge during job interviews or when applying for further studies.
To crack the JEE, students study hard, really hard. In many coaching institutes, they often work from 6am till midnight with few short breaks. On weekends, they answer extensive full-length mock tests. Academic effort of this sort is rare, if almost non-existent, in most other parts of the world. Especially for teenagers.
One might point at the negative effects of such effort. But hey, if you badly want to succeed against millions, if it is one of the very few ways to a brighter future, would you take any chances?
If a student eventually succeeds in grabbing a seat in the IITs, imagine their delight. I have experienced it, so I know.
Expulsion of under-performers
Now imagine what a student must feel if he's expelled within a year of making it in.
That's essentially what happened at IIT Roorkee, when the senate decided to expel 73 students (from a batch of around 1100) due to low CGPA (Cumulative Grade Points Average). While the parents have appealed, the senate seems to be standing by their decision.
The question then arises: If IIT Roorkee managed to find 73 under-performers amongst the students selected through JEE, is the selection process flawed?
Is the JEE truly unable to find the best? Or is it that the best that this nation is producing are not up to the mark?
Are the students really at fault?
In the recent years, the JEE has been going through a lot of flux. As awareness has spread to remote villages in the country, there has been a push to make the exam more inclusive by reducing the bar and complexity. New IITs have been opened in order to increase the intake.
To ensure fair chance to students from minority communities, such as those who suffer from disability, or have been victims of the caste system, more than 50% of the seats in the IITs are reserved.
The exam has spawned a multi-billion dollar coaching industry. Most of them charge increasingly higher fees; as with any industry, they are driven by their own supply-demand economics.
It is believed that emergence of organized coaching has led to inequality; candidates who are able to afford the cost get an edge over others who lack the resources.
Mathematician Anand Kumar started Super 30 in order to create a level playing field. Talented, but financially disadvantaged students are provided free food, shelter, education, so that they can compete against the privileged ones.
The JEE pattern itself has been experimented with several times. It has been argued that the current pattern, and the reservation policy in place has led to less-than-meritorious candidates making it in.
Conducting a fair examination that selects the best from a nation of massive economic disparity, and cultural artefact like caste-system, is not an easy task. However, the students should be the last ones to suffer from the consequences of experiments with the process of higher education.
A little kindness
The senate might argue that the students were not up to the mark, but are the students really to blame if they were found eligible? Or does it expose a flawed grading system which is too brutal for its own good?
For future aspirants, where's the assurance that the IIT system will provide them an engineering career and not leave them hanging out to dry?
Looking at the dismissal policy of top universities around the world, I wonder if IITs could provide a better support system. The students deserve at least that much after having gone through years of struggle and hard work.
A little kindness here from the senate would mean the world for these young students, who are now facing the hell of a broken future in this nation of billions.