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Entrance exams and Brand IIT: misconceptions galore

Presidency college has plans for a tough, new, two-tier entrance examination to select high quality students for its UG and PG courses. This is funny, considering the fact that IITs — that had pioneered the concept of an exclusive entrance examination through the JEE — are hoping to dilute them strongly in the near future.

A quick review of the rise and fall of the JEE is very instructive in this context.

Despite their many failings, the five original IITs have played a stellar role in redefining the educational landscape of the country. While IIT engineers may have played some role in building the nation, their main contribution was to build a mystique around “Indian Brilliance” particularly in the United States, a country that recognised their worth far more than their own nation ever did! In fact, before the IT industry pushed India into the international limelight, it was “Brand IIT” that was — and to an extent, still is — the most powerful international brand that the country has produced.

Presidency college has plans for a tough, new, two-tier entrance examination to select high quality students for its UG and PG courses. Exam

But “Brand IIT” is based on certain misconceptions. Having been a student, I know that nothing new or different is taught at IITs and a majority of teachers are nothing extraordinary. True, there was never any shortage of money so physical facilities were quite nice though that is not so anymore. Later on, when I went abroad for my masters and PhD, I realised that— for a variety of reasons that can be explored elsewhere — frontline research was almost non-existent in the IITs.

Actually “Brand IIT” is actually a smoke screen for “Brand JEE” and the fame of the five original IITs - and we need to distinguish them from the post IIT-Gauhati generation — rest almost entirely on the the quality of students who were screened into IIT. Not on what they were taught there ! Since the students were good, they would succeed anyway wherever they go and a happy byproduct was the fame of excellence that the IITs accrued in a very short time with hardly any effort on the part of the faculty or the management! A perception was created that equated the excellence of the students with the excellence of the Institutes.

Presidency College is now trying to play the same game with its allegedly ultra-tough entrance examination with which it hopes to get the best students who will then spread its fame all over the world.

But unfortunately the sanctity of the entrance examination has been sadly compromised. While the JEE may still be conducted honestly, evidence on the ground shows that its discriminatory power has been conclusively demolished because of the rise of coaching classes that have replaced native intelligence with cramming and other “exam-cracking skills” as the key tools with which to get high ranks.

Faculty of the IITs are of course living in denial. Many claim that the JEE is still important but deep down everyone knows that it is not so but to abandon the JEE would be the death knell of the “Brand IIT”. Without the JEE, the IITs are no different from the NITs and other government funded colleges in the country. This, and the money earned by individuals to conduct the JEE, is the real reason why the IITs still want to hang on to the dead body of the JEE as long as they can.

The Ministry of HRD and the IIT Council has correctly understood the limitations of a single and exclusive JEE for IITs and has come out with a broadbased plan that simplifies the admission process while reducing the number of special entrance examinations that hapless students have to face.

The exclusive IIT JEE was important and relevant at a particular point of time. It has now outlived its utility and is in the process of evolving into something else. Presidency College has every right to create a brand that is as illustrious as “Brand IIT” but it must understand that the path that the IITs took is not available any more.

Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and all other top rated schools in the world use the standard SAT/GRE score to screen and accept students. Why does Presidency or the IITs need the crutch of an exclusive entrance examination to build their reputation? Exclusive entrance examinations are neither necessary nor sufficient for that elusive excellence in education. It is more important to focus on measures that address structural issues that have been identified and discussed in previous posts.