Recently, a video about the toughness of the IIT-JEE went viral on social media. Many Indians celebrated when a few Australian professors said some of the questions were so tough that even their post-graduate students would find it difficult to solve. The professors talked about how the entrance exam pattern was encouraging the learn-by-rote method. Dr Shane Huttington said that the entrance exam pattern is an extraordinarily bad educational tool.
Science is about experimentation and creative thinking. What the Indian examination pattern was testing was the candidate’s ability to memorise and apply short cuts, he said. Professor Barry Huges talked about how unequal resources accessible to a candidate—such as coaching classes—could skew the selection process.
We can always dismiss the opinion of a few Australian professors as someone who doesn’t know the Indian situation. However, isn’t it the time to introspect the way we are churning out run-of-the-mill engineers and graduates over the years? On the occasion of the first convocation address of IIT Kharagpur in 1956, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared it as a fine monument of India. For Nehru, IITs represented India’s future. He declared that they were symbolical of the changes that were coming to India.
The question we need to ask 63 years on is whether these IITs or other premium engineering institutions have lived up to the expectations. Now, there are 23 IITs—one in almost every state. Besides, we have the National Institute of Technologies in most states. We have approximately 4,300 engineering colleges, mass-producing 15 lakh graduate engineers per year. India also produces approximately 35 lakh maths and science graduates per year. How has this mass-production contributed in nation-building?
For the middle class, IIT is a haloed institution. It is a prestige issue for parents to ensure that their wards get into the IITs. They are willing to go to any extent to secure a seat. Last year, approximately 11.99 lakh students competed for 11,289 seats. That is a success ratio of 0.94 percent, through a two-test process—JEE Main and JEE Advanced. Though the JEE Advanced pattern changes every year, it has been objective type questions for the past few years at both the levels.
There could be no worse way than testing the engineering aptitude of a student than the objective type question. It neither measures critical thinking nor creative thinking, a prerequisite for a good engineer or a scientist. What it measures is pure speed in problem-solving skill. Most state-level engineering entrance tests also follow the same pattern. One can crack any objective type examination if one has practised enough. But the amount of effort and time required to reach this skill level is insane. Many parents force their wards to start solving sample papers, with a timer in tow, from Class VI or VII onward. The competition is so much that the poor kid sacrifices his or her childhood and lives like a zombie solving questions.
Coaching centres that have mushroomed all over the country follow the same strategy. They make students work for more than 17-18 hours, doing nothing but solving sample question papers. Some poor students cannot stand the pressure and end up in depression or worse, commit suicide. By the time a student writes the entrance examination, he or she need not be aware of any basic concepts of physics, chemistry or maths. The student has to develop only the sleight of hand and the power to recall the answer that was practised a million times.
To add to the woes, there is negative marking too. Science and technology is all about failure, taking enough time to think, experiment, fail, rework, fail again until one achieves a breakthrough. Thomas Edison famously remarked that he failed 999 times before succeeding in inventing the incandescent light. Same is the case with entrepreneurship or with anything worthwhile in life. Can we expect a sportsman being punished for every mistake he makes? Is a writer or an artist, or musician punished for his or her mistakes? Has any great scientist got anything right at the first time? We are teaching our youngsters not to take risks.
Now comes the clincher: What is the Indian contribution to science and technology in the last 60 years? How many Nobel Prize winners in science has Independent India produced? Zero. The Indian origin people who work in foreign universities don’t count. Indians claim we are great in maths. How many Indians have got the Fields Medal in maths? Zero. But Indians are great in IT, right? The ACM AM Turing Award is the Nobel equivalent in the computing field. How many Indians have won it? Zero. In comparison, the US has about 336 Nobel Prize winners, with one-third of our population.
Except for starting a few software companies that exploited the wage advantage in India and required only low-level engineering skills, what is the contribution of our reputed engineering colleges and its graduates in shaping the technology and science of this century? Grudgingly, we have to admit the Australian professors are right. Unless we re-look the entire admission process of our reputed engineering and science colleges, we will continue to churn out mediocre engineers.