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The IITs have a huge problem. Here’s how we can fix it

By Professor  

The Indian Institution of Technology (IITs) are public institutions of “national importance” set up in 23 locations across India. First set up in 1951 in Kharagpur, the main problem with the IIT education system is that there is an allocation problem: more than half of the students graduating from IITs do not pursue their subject of study post graduation.


The 4-5 years spent learning in a government institution, funded majorly by taxpayer money, and most of this knowledge is wasted, due to the allocation problem. While certainly, knowledge dissemination is interdisciplinary and students take a wide breadth of courses in IITs, subject-specific knowledge fails to trickle down to the working sector due to this.


Is there a solution to this? Can allocation of students to their departments be improved so that a chemical engineer ends up working for a job where he/she can use the skills acquired at IIT rather than go to a job in the finance sector? There needs to be a reformation of the system so that the IIT system does not invariably end up becoming a feeder system for the corporate sector where finance and consulting jobs are aplenty and instead is a place where students who truly want to study chemical engineering and continue to pursue it later in life come to.


The IIT admissions process

One of the main ways the system can be changed is by reforming the admissions process for the IITs. Currently, the IITs have a common admission process for undergraduate admissions called the Joint Entrance Examination – Advanced formerly called theIIT-JEEtill 2012. Once students appear for this exam, they get a rank based on their performance in the same, and subsequently appear for a counselling session where things such as their preferred department and the number of seats available are taken into consideration and their department is allocated.


However, the reality is that the department you are allocated to hardly has to do anything with your preferences. In fact, the entire allocation process hinges on the rank you have obtained, with most high-rank students opting for computer science and electronics. Additionally, most students only care about having the overall stamp of approval of “going to an IIT” rather than about what they will be studying, which is the fundamental problem perpetuated by the system.


What is the solution?

I believe that the joint entrance exam should have a set of screening questions which assess the suitability of a student to the department they want to apply to be a part of. For instance, a student who obtains a higher score in chemistry as compared to physics and mathematics could be incentivized to go a department like chemical engineering, chemistry or biochemical engineering rather than been inducted into computer science just on the basis of his/her rank. Often high-ranking students are forced to opt for subjects such as computer science despite their obvious interests in other fields, due to which they perform poorly in the field they have been allocated to.


The allocation problem can be fixed easily by providing students with the incentive to study the subjects they are passionate about, rather than just “getting” into an IIT and gravitating towards finance and consulting jobs. The revamped entrance exam system will help screen students on the basis of subjects they have expertise and knowledge about, rather than just having a “rank-based” system of allocation.