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How Kapil Sibal rode roughshod over IIT autonomy

The problem with Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal is that he tries to be too clever by half. It was clear right from the beginning that he wanted a common entrance examination for engineering, and that is what he has now engineered by trampling on the autonomy of the IIT Senates and using the IIT Council - where the votes are stacked in favour of the government - to push his idea through.

Sibal's technique was this. First, pretend to hold a dialogue without actually listening; next, push the idea through a rubber-stamping body and then claim that the whole process was done through dialogue and consensus. A dialogue of the deaf is no dialogue at all.

An Indian Express story explains the sequence of events to prove that Sibal did how own thing and ignored the actual consensus. He may insist that he had consulted all stakeholders before deciding on the common entrance exam for all engineering colleges, but the fact is the IIT senates and faculty members had raised objections to the new format on various occasions and these were studiously ignored.

Each IIT has a senate,  created under the IIT Act, which consists of representatives from the faculty of the IITs and students. The senate discusses the operation of each of the institutes. It is headed by the Director of each IIT.

Representative image of IIT Bombay. AFP

A committee headed by Damodar Acharya, the Director of IIT Kharagpur, was formed by the HRD ministry in 2010. According to the Express report,  the IIT Kanpur faculty had rejected the committee's report saying it hadn't consulted with specialists. This was as far back as 2010.

In 2011, a committee headed by T Ramasami, secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, made the recommendation that weightage should be given to Class XII marks in addition to the two exams - JEE mains and JEE advanced.

This was then endorsed by the councils of the IITs and NITs in November 2011 and by state education ministers in February 2012.

However, this new measure never found any favour among most IIT senates.

IIT Kanpur senate held a meeting on 15 February in which members of the senate criticised most of the new measures and suggested they not be implemented until all the IIT senates had discussed it. Among the major complaints they had included the quality of the class XII examinations conducted by each state education board, the methods used to collect the views of all stake holders among other issues.

However, the HRD ministry instead set up a core committee to interact with the older IITs and said they would also reach out to the academic community from the IITs to get their views on the issue.

On 5 May, the IIT Bombay senate also recommended that the new system not be implemented from 2013 and should instead be ratified by them before being implemented. The IIT Delhi senate also raised objections to the new JEE format being implemented from 2013.

Despite these varied recommendations from IIT senates and the faculty on the new JEE format, the HRD ministry told them that the final decision would only be taken by the IIT council which did not have to be dependent on what the senates had said.

However, whether the the IIT council truly represented the opinion of the IITs is debatable. Of its membership of 30-32, roughly half (16) represent the IITs and IISc (through their respective chairman and director, and the balance are all nominees where the government has clear influence. This means Sibal only had to split opinion among some of the IIT directors and a majority would support his ideas at the IIT council.

Thus even as the All India IIT Faculty Federation met Sibal on 25 May to impress on him that the senates' views should form the basis for any decision on a common entrance test, Sibal had already decided otherwise. Which is why he told them, that while their inputs would be taken, "final decision will be taken only by the IIT Council which could be different from the IIT senates' majority decisions".

This statement, quoted by the Express, clearly shows how Sibal won the day by disregarding what the faculty were telling him and breaking the unity of the IIT faculty on the issue. This is not a difficult task since the appointment of IIT chairmen depends on the HRD ministry.

And on 28 May, Sibal held a meeting with the councils of the IIT, IIIT and NIT and announced the creation of the new entrance examination for engineering colleges from 2013.

While the new examination scheme  may be the future of the IITs, it perhaps wouldn't have hurt if the minister had chosen to preserve the autonomy of the IIT senates. The faculty have a bigger stake in brand IIT than politician Sibal. All the IIT Senates were asking for was to defer the common entrance exam decision to 2014 to consider better options. But Sibal was in a a hurry for his own reasons.